Joe Biden spent the first month of his presidency routinely making calls to world leaders. The call never came for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The quiet telephone line became important news in Ankara, despite – or perhaps because of – years of alleged difficulties between NATO allies, from pushing through Syria to Turkey buying a Russian air defense system. However, interviews with over a dozen officials, lawmakers and other experts make it clear that the US president's radio silence indicates a harsher American tone towards Turkey: Ankara will continue to get the cold shoulder if it does not clean up its act – and quickly .
"The relationship is very challenging and we are not in a position to rely on Turkey as we have relied on, or we are confident that we can rely on other NATO allies," said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
However, most agree that even if Biden's Secretary of State and some of his top advisors call their Turkish counterparts, there are few good answers to keep relations from turning down any further, and there are few policy options for Biden, who continue to put Erdogan under pressure.
"This is the deepest point in US-Turkey relations," said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament who now works at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
Erdogan is no stranger to Biden. As US Vice President, he led the relationship through a low point after an attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, which the Turkish head of state had long blamed the United States for in some way. But as Biden navigates the diplomatic minefield of U.S.-Turkey relations as Commander in Chief, it will be a major test of his overarching foreign policy agenda, showing whether he is both mending ties with a long-time NATO ally and mitigating Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian leanings can.
Turkey's aggressive foreign policy approach creates a potential crisis while waiting for the Biden government. Erdogan is in the clutches of Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Turkish purchase of the $ 2.5 billion S-400 air defense system and is at odds with US foreign policy in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey remains under US sanctions against buyers of Russian defense equipment, despite former US officials and experts saying the penalties are not intended to harm the Turkish economy.
"This is the second rodeo for most of the people in the Biden administration," said Aaron Stein, director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “I just think people are fed up with it. Everyone comes in with clear eyes that this is not going well, but the ball is in Ankara's field. "
When asked to comment on the story from the Turkish embassy in Washington, Ankara said "the utmost importance” on relations with the United States and will work to strengthen relations with the Biden administration.
"Turkey has been a NATO ally for nearly seven decades. The S-400 procurement does not in any way mean a strategic change of course for Turkey. Turkey remains a responsible and reliable member of NATO.” said the Turkish embassy. "For over two years, Turkey has been proposing to set up a working group involving NATO to address concerns about the S-400.”
So far, the Biden government appears to be looking for a balanced approach – but does not seem willing to let Turkey's problematic behavior go unchecked.
"They are obviously not trying to blow the relationship up, they are not hostile. Nor are they submissive," said Nicholas Danforth, a senior non-resident of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Affairs Engagement will take place on US terms. "
Turkey has offered an olive branch and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has launched a model that will allow Turkey to store the S-400 off the coast – the first obvious sign of good faith from Ankara.
To some extent, this reflects Erdogan's growing political vulnerability, which is only exacerbated by US sanctions. As a result, the Turkish economy, which weathered the COVID-19 downturn last year thanks to a flood of generous government loans, is suffering from high inflation, a falling currency and stagnating employment growth. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which faces a re-election campaign in 2023, was defeated in local elections in Istanbul two years ago, underscoring his political weakness in some parts of the country – if he allows free and fair elections.
"If there were elections now, he would not win," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy. "And if he decides to draw a Trump, Biden can no longer look the other way after what happened in the US," referring to the unfounded allegations of former US President Donald Trump of election fraud in the 2020 election campaign.
The trick for the Biden government is to keep pressure on Turkey while maintaining a decades-old military alliance. Some former US officials are unhappy with the early developments of the Biden strategy. They still see Turkey as a critical bulwark on NATO's southern flank and do not see Erdogan's flirt with Russia as a continuing trend.
Defense ties between the US and Turkey are deep: the US Department of Defense houses nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, less than 60 km from the Mediterranean Sea, and a NATO early warning radar system is being set up in Turkey to defend against ballistic missile attacks east. It remains a major player in the Black Sea region, where tensions between western Russia have risen sharply since Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
A former senior US official who spoke to him Foreign policy On condition of anonymity, Turkey described Turkey as a "natural enemy" of Russia and a potential bulwark against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.
The Biden government insists that it can both hold Turkey accountable for backward democratic values and maintain close ties as NATO allies. "We have common interests in fighting terrorism, ending the conflict in Syria and preventing evil influences in the region," said a foreign ministry spokesman. "We can uphold our values, including human rights and the rule of law, and protect our interests, while bringing Turkey in line with the transatlantic alliance on critical issues."
The Turkish embassy insists that the country maintain democratic values. "(F) Fundamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the constitution. Turkey continues to implement democratic reforms.” said the Turkish embassy. "With this in mind, a comprehensive human rights action plan was announced just yesterday, which underlines once again Turkey's will in this regard.”
But the institutional ties that once helped the two countries weather past storms are frayed. “Traditionally, institutions in Turkey-USA played a major role. Ties, ”said Gonul Tol. Director of Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Tol noted that the Turkish State Department and the US State Department have worked closely in the past even when their leaders clashed.
That habit fell by the wayside under Trump, when the State Department was sometimes incapacitated by a president who distrusted professional diplomats and evaded his advisors to develop a personal relationship with Erdogan.
The frustrations began to boil over late in the Trump administration when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began to lose patience with Ankara, former Trump officials said, despite Trump and Erdogan's personal relationships. The former senior official said it was difficult to work with Pompeo's counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, which hampered relations, as did pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to turn Turkey into a bullying power on former officials in the region because of Erdogan's connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In one case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared a routine statement in late October 2020 to publish Republic Day in Turkey, a major national holiday. However, according to several officials familiar with the matter, the Pompeo office prevented the statement from ever being made public. (The State Department declined to comment.)
The same goes for the military, said other experts and former officials, especially after Erdogan's government accused many in the Turkish military who had close ties with colleagues from the US and NATO of participating in the attempted coup. about two dozen Turkish officers, including those stationed on a NATO command in Virginia, have sought asylum in the United States in recent years after facing accusations that they insist they are false. US military support for Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State in Syria has further deteriorated institutional relations.
In the past, "the US military always came in support of Turkey and was one of Turkey's greatest defenders when Congress or the White House turned against Turkey," said Merve Tahiroglu, an expert on Turkey on the project for the Middle east democracy. "That is no longer the case."
Washington's tougher push against Ankara, exemplified by Trump's approval of sanctions for the purchase of the S-400 after more than a year of deliberation, may have intensified with the new administration. When asked who might hold pro-Turkish views in the future government, the former high-ranking official was unable to name a single new candidate he considered sympathetic to Ankara.
But the distrust goes both ways. Erdogan has repeatedly railed against the West to support armed Kurdish groups in Syria. Turkish public opinion has steadily incriminated both NATO and the United States as allies, in part due to Erdogan's unsubstantiated claims that the United States played a role in sparking the botched coup attempt against him.
Some Turkish experts point to other missteps in the US that heightened tensions from a Turkish perspective: disputes over NATO's withdrawal of some Patriot missile defense systems as tensions between Turkey and Russia increased in 2015; US Policy on the Syrian Civil War; and continued US support for Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State – groups that Turkey labeled terrorist organizations.
“What kind of NATO alliance is that? Your problem is not helping refugees. Your problem is different. You are still dealing with terrorists. On the other hand, we are continuing our fight against terrorism and terrorists everywhere and will continue to do so, ”said Erdogan said in a speech Last month. “We open our hearts as long as friends act like friends. Otherwise we will do everything we have done so far. "
Despite the bad blood, most experts say the relationship won't break down. For the West, it is still – as it was almost 70 years ago when Turkey joined NATO – a question of geopolitics: Turkey is simply too important geographically and too critical for the attitude of the US armed forces in the Middle East. Even American and European officials, annoyed by Turkey's antics in NATO, never go so far as to seriously question whether Turkey belongs in the alliance.
For Ankara it is about safety and economy. The Turkish economy needs links to Western markets and investments, and despite the flare-up of tensions, Erdogan is unwilling to abandon his close ties with the West for autocratic rivals in Moscow or Beijing.
Some experts believe that Erdogan's pragmatism will ultimately outweigh his anti-Western platform. "Erdogan, always the pragmatist, doesn't really have many options other than a working relationship with the United States," said Tahiroglu. “Turkey is not energy independent, its economy is not booming, it is becoming more militarily independent, but its entire successful indigenous military industrial complex is still heavily dependent on US licenses.
"It needs good relations with the EU and the United States."
Erdogan, caught between anti-Western tirades, has sent some warmer diplomatic overtures to Washington. "As Turkey, we believe that our common interests with the United States far outweigh our disagreements," he said on television on February 20. "Turkey will continue to contribute in a way that is worthy of allied and strategic partnership relations." between the two countries, ”he said, while relations with Washington were“ seriously tested ”. Erdogan too revealed A reform package on Tuesday should prevent criticism of the country's democratic relapse.
But even those in Washington who are fed up with Erdogan do not take the relationship for granted and say that there must be opportunities for the two countries to work together so that Ankara does not definitely turn to Moscow or Beijing.
"We really have to show clear lines in the sand, but we also have to make sure that Turkey finds a way to roll back a hit with us and the rest of the NATO allies," said Spanberger. "Of course we don't want the Turks to turn more towards Russia. We don't want this relationship to get stronger."